Waking up White (and Finding Myself in the Story of Race) – Irving

This book was a journey for me – mentally, emotionally, even physically. I could feel the turbulence of my emotions and my body as I read, particularly Irving’s earlier, more memoir-ish sections. I, too, grew up in the suburbs. Now that I think of it, I can’t recall a single person of color who lived on our block. I attended a great private school, in fact, an integrated private school thanks to a source of funds I only vaguely understood. Though we had some struggles, I was most assuredly the beneficiary of a system established and protected in the interest of supporting the likes of me.

I can’t recall a particular epiphany that led me to an understanding of my unease with the world. There was a flirtation with the anti-apartheid movement and protesting outside of the South African embassy. There were fears of a nuclear disaster, perhaps best symbolized by the TV movie, The Day After.

College – a private one in an isolated, remarkable, and, at times, tense neighborhood – was a kind of island. I had conversations to prove I was right. I relished the life of the mind.

Perhaps it was when I began teaching that I started to notice and started to be able to articulate the imbalances in the world. Whether it was a question of a school’s resources or the experiences of the students in front of me, I can recall a kind of, to borrow Irving’s language, an awakening. I moved to a new city and my second school in 1999, and was astonished to learn that my new school district was still under the mandates of Brown v Board of Education, a decision that had been rendered 45 years earlier. I taught at an integrated arts magnet school. The white students had long bus rides so they could have access to additional arts opportunities. But you could generally draw a line down the center of my classroom and find that the students had segregated themselves. And it was near impossible for these middle school students to get together after school for social reasons or to work on a project. Those same buses were waiting. I wish Irving, who spent some time as a teacher, could have gone into more depth about what it means to teacher (to borrow another phrase) “other people’s children.” I have taught a variety of students in a variety of places in a variety of circumstances. Why did I never get fully comfortable with the Hmong population in Minnesota? Why do I find myself drawn to the school where I currently teach – with 100% students of color? I don’t know how to guide my own self-reflection on this question.

Once I got past the initial section of the book, I found myself nodding at much of what Irving so bravely writes – both because I agreed with her and because her descriptions of her assumptions and missteps recalled some of my own. I underlined this passage quickly, as I think it’s powerful and that it reminds me of one of my school situations:

It’s hard work to engage in conflict, and even harder to have to change your mind. People in power have the privilege of avoiding both. The culture of niceness provides a tidy cover, creating a social norm that says conflict is bad, discomfort should be avoided, and those who create them mark themselves as people who lack the kind of emotional restraint necessary to hold positions of power.

Irving’s culture of niceness is suburban Connecticut. Mine?


I also admired this passage –

Change requires tolerating the kind of emotions that arise when the constraints of nice conversations are lifted. I’ve long felt the term “tolerance,” as related to racial and cultural difference, isn’t quite right. I’ve understood it to mean that I’m supposed to tolerate people who aren’t like me. Is tolerating someone really the best I can do?

Irving’s alternative, what she calls “a strength-in-difference paradigm,” appeals to me instead.

If there was one thing I could talk with Irving about, it would be the question of feedback. I’m fine being ‘checked’ by those with life experiences and training are different from mine. It can be hard at conferences, where the question of trust comes in, but perhaps it can be harder in familiar settings, where feelings can linger. But she makes it sound like the responsibility for feedback is unilateral. I understand if I’m not invited. And if you invite me to a lecture or a talk or a reading, I will listen, perhaps ask a question if time and circumstances allow. But to invite me to a conversation and tell me just to listen? That would be very hard for me. I know I need to work on talking less,  talking differently and listening well. But to keep silent?



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